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Jennifer Lawrence on Winter’s Bone

After her impressive turn as Kim Basinger’s troubled teenage daughter in 2008’s The Burning Plain, 20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence has now given one of the year’s most riveting performances in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, which opens this week (and which our own David Edelstein loved). As a rural Missouri teen trying to track down her meth-head father, Lawrence pretty much carries the entirety of Granik’s uncomfortably dark backwoods thriller. She will next be seen in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, starring Mel Gibson. Oh, and there’s this month’s Esquire spread, which is about as un–Winter’s Bone as one can get. In between doing dishes and waiting for her guitar lesson, the young actress took some time to speak to Vulture.

So, despite your age, you’re becoming an old hand at these dark movies about the troubled children of messed-up parents. Besides Winter’s Bone and The Burning Plain, you were also in Lori Petty’s incredibly grim The Poker House.
Yeah, I don’t know what that’s about. I’ve never gotten a movie because of another movie. I’ve had to audition for all of them. I think I’m just drawn to these — those are just the scripts I get really passionate about. And they happen to all be really dark. I also audition for all sorts of other things. So I think these dark indies also choose me in a way, too.

How do you prepare for a role like this? Winter’s Bone has such a lived-in feel to it. Did you do a lot of research?
Film is always a collaboration, so there’s no way I can prepare for it all by myself. I went up there to the location the week before, and I spent some time with the family on whose property we were shooting. Little Ashlee in the movie, the girl who’s my sister — she lives there. She was part of that family, and we actually became close, so Deborah and I thought, Why don’t we just use her? ‘Cause in the book, my character actually has two little brothers. But once I became such good friends with little Ashlee, we thought, Why bother to cast that other part, why not just use her? And she’s absolutely fantastic in the film.

Were you ever worried that the locals would be offended by the film? After all, the story is full of meth-heads and criminals.
Deborah made everybody read the book. She had hundreds of copies of the book, and she gave everybody copies, so they’d understand that we weren’t there to mock them or to portray them in a negative light. We were basically shooting a movie about a girl who happens to live there. If you think about it, in the movie, these characters aren’t really made into heroes or villains, really. It’s just true.

How did you become an actress?
I went to New York with my mom for spring break and got my picture taken, and that whole ridiculous thing happened. Then we were bored in the city and didn’t know what else to do, and we got a call about how all these agencies wanted to meet me, we said, “Well, okay, we don’t have anything better to do.” I did a lot of cold reads. I’d never acted before or anything like that. But a lot of people said it was the best cold read they’d ever seen from a 14-year-old. Which was how I knew they were lying, because I’ve never been the best at anything. [Laughs.]

Do you ever consult with your family about the parts you’re doing?
No. Absolutely not. [Laughs.] They wouldn’t even want that. This is my job.

You’re in the new film The Beaver, which is being directed by Jodie Foster. She was also a child actor. Did she give you any advice?
She didn’t really give me advice, but when we met for the first time and got coffee, we ended up talking for hours. We both went back to our people and said, “I’ve never met anyone else that’s reminded me so much of myself.”

So, let’s talk about that Esquire photo shoot you just did. There’s a pretty big disconnect between a tough, gritty movie like Winter’s Bone and that photo shoot. What’s the response been?
Most of it has been good, though obviously some people have questioned why I did that. Anybody that knows the business knows that I have to do that. My biggest fear is being typecast. I’ve always known I wanted to have options. I want to be able to do whatever I want. Winter’s Bone is a movie that doesn’t have a single sexual bone in its body, and so it made sense to do something that was the opposite of that, to do something that was sexy.

Are people recognizing you more now thanks to that photo shoot?
I’m not getting recognized so much, I don’t think, but I’ve gotten more text messages from boys than I’ve ever gotten in my life! I just didn’t know that many people were reading. I wasn’t even annoyed. I was more impressed. I’m like, “Wow, you read, still?”

Jennifer Lawrence on Winter’s Bone